David Wilson Researcher, Writer, TV Producer and Director
Why are Greek theatres round?
Making Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth [ AG:TGSOE ] turned up as many questions as answers. One of the questions which became more and more curious in my mind was why the theatres took the shape they did: the characteristic circular orchestra and high rows of seating, often making more than a semicircle, together with often spectacular views across the landscape beyond. The design is so common and so obvious that theatres are the most recognizable buildings in any Greek ruin. It’s a sort of given. Or is it? Well, no…
Researching the films we investigated something I had never heard of before, the deme theatres of ancient Attica [the region which comprised the city-state of Athens]. Large cities like Athens and Syracuse, sanctuaries like Delphi, Epidauros and Dodoni, had giant theatres seating thousands by the beginning of the third century BC. But in Attica, we learned from an article by Jessica Paga, many of the demes [local communities which made up the citizen body] had their own small theatres, and more are being recognized [Peiraeus eventually had two!]. Two of them, at Rhamnous and Thorikos, appeared in Episode 1 of AG:TGSOE, and we also filmed at a third, Ikarion. Thorikos is the oldest surviving stone-built theatre, dating from the late 6th century, Ikarion from the mid 5th and Rhamnous from the 4th century.
For me one of the most remarkable things about these theatres [and there are others like them] is that the central performance space, the orchestra, was not round, but oblong. What’s more, some people think the original orchestra at Athens may have been oblong too! Jessica P suggests that the oblong shape have reflected civic and political uses for the buildings other than just drama, and this makes sense, given the way theatre was deeply embedded in Athenian social and political life.
In Attica the oblong shape seems both to predate the circular orchestra and to have existed alongside it. But as far as I can tell, in theatres outside Attica, a circle was the norm. So why did the circle come to dominate?
An obvious answer is the circular choral dances which were a central feature of Greek drama. But as Jessica P remarks, it is perfectly possible to perform a circular dance in a rectangular space. And I suspect there may have been reasons other than mere convenience.
In this view, the SHAPE of the theatre powerfully enhances the purpose of the drama, because of its effect on the audience’s brain. At the heart of this idea is the Greek word ekstasis, ‘stepping outside your self’, the forerunner of our word ‘ecstasy’. As Soi Agelidis remarked in AG:TGSOE, the Great Dionysia festival during which the plays were performed was all about achieving ekstasis, through wine [Dionysos was the god of wine], through dancing in procession and performance, and through drama. This seems to imply an altered state of consciousness, or some sort of trance. There’s a visual representation of just this on a famous vase which seems to depict the cast of a satyr play. Only one of them is actually performing: the dancing satyr, who is depicted standing outside the frame which encloses all the other people in the picture.
Ekstasis applied to the audience too. The whole structure of Greek tragedy aimed at getting the audience to step outside themselves, to think and feel empathy for others, and as ravers and others know, one way of doing that is through ASC or trance. Now one of the visual aspects of trance attested in a wide range of psychological literature, is the experience of a vortex , a visual tunnel through which the subject travels while entering a trance state. Go to the top of a classic theatre like the Theatre of Dionysos, look down and what do you see?
A kind of vortex, made by the circular orchestra and the audience. Could it be that the vertiginous view of the circular orchestra enhanced the process of ekstasis in the audience? If the shape of the theatre did help induce a mild state of trance, it would have been a factor in the power of tragedy, for in such states people are able to step outside their normal ways of thinking and embrace new ideas – as anyone who has undergone hypnotherapy to relieve eczema or stop smoking will testify.
The orchestra/ vortex put the action into another world - not the ‘everyday world’ - into which the viewer could step and where new things could happen. But it did so safely because in Athens, say, he could also look up and contemplate the ‘everyday world’ in the shape of the slopes of Mount Hymettos, before returning ‘through’ the vortex to the imagined world of the stage.
Once this process was recognized, architects building new theatres would have embraced the circular orchestra because even if only a fraction of the audience experienced it fully, as is likely, audiences would still be affected.
This is speculation but it may explain why the circular shape became the preferred form in the Greek world outside Attica where theatres were used almost exclusively for dramas , while rectangular theatres continued in the deme theatres, where there were other civic activities to cater for.